Death and Ghats of Kasi

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I remember listening to and understanding the significance of Ram Naam Satya Hai for the first time when we shifted to our new rented house on Harishchandra Ghat Road. I spent the first twenty-nine years since my birth in the same gali. My life ran its course from 5/51 to 72, finally back to 61. The first house we used to live in was a bit inwards. So, the only possibility of my seeing death was when somebody of the immediate neighbourhood died, because then they would take the dead body for cremation to the central cremation ghat of the locality: Harishchandra Ghat. There’s a long story of the origin of the name. That’ll come later.

5/72 was the second house from the entrance of my gali, right where it met Harishchandra Ghat Road. So, we heard many times a day the chanting of the set of words that literally mean something else but in Kasi they are only used on one occasion. I don’t remember having ever used those words lightly in my childhood.

The corpse is carried on a bamboo ladder of around six feet in length and around two and a half feet in width. At any given time, four persons take the four ends of the ladder on their shoulders. Others in the party have the function of chanting incessantly. The corpse is taken for a dip in Gangaji and is then cremated on a pyre.

I’ll not go into the details of the process. The post is about death and ghats. So, I’ll focus on the one cremation ghat that I know since my childhood: Harishchandra Ghat.

The ghat can be reached through the road that’s known by the ghat’s name. The road has a discernible slope towards Gangaji. At the end of the road there are shops selling all that’s required in a Hindu cremation. The first thing that one sees while walking towards the ghat is the electric crematorium.

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Traditional Hindus find the very idea of cremation on anything other than a proper pyre very revolting. They forbid their family from the use of the electric crematorium on their death. Yes, it is talked about, planned, in a way. Elderly people, at least, are very open about death, their death that is. They instruct their family, if they are in power, or request their family to fulfill their last wish of a proper cremation. The place where pyres are erected is an area of the ghat close to Gangaji.

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The image above has the left hand limit of the area on which cremation is performed. The brick platform is the exact location for the pyre. The steps of the ghats and the area covered with sand are used for the purpose too, depending upon the need of the hour.

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The image above is of the ghat, when looked from towards Karnatak State Ghat. There’s a small temple of the ghat deity on the platform painted with yellow and black stripes vertically. The stone structure to the left of the temple gives shelter to the people who come with the corpse, especially in summer afternoons.

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The first time I reached this shelter was with my grandmother. It was early afternoon. I still remember the literally nauseating smell that I had inhaled with the air for the first time in my life. I don’t think that the first experience of that order can ever be forgotten.

Breeze blows over the river, towards the city. The smell of the burning human flesh is carried to the houses in the neighbourhood with the air streams. I remember going to the roof top on summer evenings, after the regular electricity cut, and getting the same smell at least, a kilometre away from the ghat.

As I kept visiting ghats on my own, I got habituated to the smell of burning corpses, with repeated exposures. There’s an area enclosed by iron railings by the space where the actual cremation takes place. Its image is given below.

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People sit on the railings and on the stone benches that are in the enclosed area. They also sit on the steps of the ghat. After the cremation, they go for a purifying dip in Gangaji. The set of ghats from Kedar Ghat to the left to Hanuman Ghat to the right are used for that purpose, generally depending on the directions given by the most experienced person in the group. Before leaving or while on the way, the whole party must take the customary sweets. It is (when I saw it last) painted outside Ksheer Saagar, the most popular and the costliest shop selling sweets and yogurt etc. that they don’t let post-cremation parties enter. Pooja Sweets capitalizes on their competitors opting out. In the recent years, they have started attracting these parties in large numbers.

Harishchandra Ghat does not have the mythologically significant position that the main burning ghat of Kasi, Manikarnika Ghat, has. Neither is it as grand as the other one. The images of Manikarnika Ghat are given below:

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Manikarnika Ghat is at the centre of the old city, very close to Kasi Vishwanath, the central Shiv temple of Kasi. The previous tow central temples of the deity: Jnana Vaapi and Adi vishweshwar are also nearby. It is very strange that a ghat at such a location has continued functioning as the cremation ghat since time immemorial. Harishchandra Ghat is definitely newer. Yet, the story of the mythical king Harishchandra, an ancestor of Lord Ram, mentions the ghat as the place where the king had worked as a slave of the head-dom, cremating corpses.

The story of the King is that he made a promise in his dream and to fulfill the promise he gave his kingdom to a sage. He then had to sell his queen and his son as slaves, after he had failed to give dakshina to the sage. He sold himself to the head-dom, none other than Bhole Baba in disguise. The king then underwent a series of hardships and emerged truthful till the end. Gods were pleased and it was revealed that he was chosen for a test of his truthfulness and his success brought him glory and immortal fame. His name, associated with the ghat gives it a lot of importance. Still, it can’t compete with the ghat that can boast of having a kund that has the gem of Mahadev’s consort Sati’s ear-ring: Manikarnika. The kund in the image below is believed to have water with special curative/ purifying properties.

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